Two people can do the very same benevolent thing in the very same way, but preconceived ideas can affect how we view the motivations behind them. This matters to philanthropists, as well as advocates for and leaders of charities, because it can have an impact on their work.
Imagine seeing a woman stop on the street to give a dollar to a homeless person. Would that inspire you to give yourself, or would you just walk on? Many of us would be moved to give, which might even inspire others to give, creating a cycle of generosity. That’s not necessarily a universal response, though. Sometimes people pay kindness forward, and sometimes they don’t. Clearly, something can get in the way of our altruistic impulses. But what?
Two new studies shed some light on this question. Their findings suggest that when we see others give, our minds are making nuanced judgments about the people and the situation – which in turn affect whether we give ourselves. Understanding those judgments and how to work with them could help spread more kindness in our communities and around the world.
How we judge altruistic acts
When we see people engage in charity, one new German study suggests, we judge them partly based on their social status.
In the study, participants read a fictitious media report about a German volunteer handing out food to refugees at a refugee center. In some accounts, the volunteer was a well-known public figure or a professional with a presumed high income (a stockbroker); in others, the person was an everyday citizen or had a lower economic status (a carpenter). The reports also varied in whether the depicted volunteer wanted his or her generosity to be made public or had tried (but failed) to keep it private.
After reading the accounts, the participants were asked how altruistic the volunteer’s motives were (versus egoistic or self-centered).